Should Principals Have Term Limits?

Note:  This post is me starting a conversation coming from a teacher’s perspective, hoping teachers and administrators will share their thoughts.  This is not a solid opinion of mine but a question.  This is also not in relation to my own principal, I hope that clarifies.

I was asked once where I thought this whole blogging thing was going, what was my destination?  I had no answer so the questioner asked me whether I would ever become a principal.  I quickly answered no and when pressed to explain I told them I was worried about losing my relevance after a few years, that I would not be able to stay current and soon my ideas would be as outdated as my outfits.  See teaching every day keeps me in the know, in the moment with these kids, so every day I have to adapt, every day I have to figure out new situations.  And even now just 5 years into my teaching career some of my original ideas are already outdated and have definitely lost their relevance to anyone but myself.

I bring this up because I cannot help but wonder whether principalships should have term limits of sort?    

Should principals only be allowed to be one for 4 or 5 years before they are automatically kicked back to the classroom for a year?  Then when the year has passed they can reapply for another principalship. And yes, this idea is completely cumbersome and a little bit crazy and I am not even saying it is the right idea, but how do we make sure principals stay relevant in their knowledge when sought out by teachers?  After all, there are only so many conferences, articles, discussions you can experience and even those will never add up to more classroom experience.  And perhaps it is not needed, perhaps principals stay current through their teachers but don’t they also need to rely on their own teaching experiences to help them guide kids and teachers alike?  I don’t have the answer.

Since I am not a principal and I am genuinely curious, I would love your comments on this:

  • Can principals give relevant advice after they have been out of the classroom for many years?
  • Does it matter how many years they taught?  Or does it only matter how they are as a leader?
  • How do we feel as teachers when our principal has not been in the classroom for more than 10 years and still uses their own old experiences as their measuring stock for every question?  Does it work?

I don’t have the answer, only this huge question that I cannot answer.  I would love to hear your opinions on this.


16 thoughts on “Should Principals Have Term Limits?”

  1. Great post. IMO, every principal should have a teaching component. After all, we are suppose to be the learning leader at our school. How can we do that if we don't practice (and hone) our craft? I love teaching. It's the best part of my job.

  2. Being a full time administrator in a position equivalent to an Assistant Principal, it only took me 1 year outside the classroom to decided to go back and teach a class. Though I'm not getting any extra compensation for this (and sometimes it's hard to find time to do everything I need to do), it was very rewarding going back and being a teacher. So maybe it's not necessary to step down from an admin position altogether, but I would definitely encourage full-time administrators to find a space in their agenda and teach a class.

  3. Here are some thoughts to your questions below…Just so you know that where I am from, a principal has a contract that lasts typically from 3-5 years. If they are no longer meeting the needs as a principal, they have the opportunity to go back to the classroom. It used to be that once you were a principal, you would always be a principal if you chose but it is not like that anymore. You have to show that you can still effectively do the work that is needed.Can principals give relevant advice after they have been out of the classroom for many years?Yes…but that is dependent upon the principal and whether they are willing to learn. If a principal goes into classrooms and works with teachers, they get a perspective that other teachers don't necessarily get. They see effective and sometimes ineffective teaching. If they don't go into the classroom and look however, I think that they lose context.Also, an effective principal should also be a teacher, but just not necessarily to kids. They should still be a teacher to the staff that they work with. I know that it is not kids, but many have shared the view that teaching teachers has its own challenges. If they simply "run" meetings, again, they have lost sight of what it is to teach.Does it matter how many years they taught? Or does it only matter how they are as a leader?Being a younger principal, I obviously have a bias to this from when I started. You can have a teacher that has taught for 25 years and be ineffective while someone who has taught 3 years, be amazing. It can also be the exact opposite.It is not necessarily age as much as it is mindset. Teachers that are sponges and are willing to grow tend to become better quicker no matter how old they are. The same works with an administrator. How do we feel as teachers when our principal has not been in the classroom for more than 10 years and still uses their own old experiences as their measuring stock for every question? Does it work?As a principal would not feel comfortable with the second part of your question. If a principal is a learner, do they have an expiry date? Does a teacher become ineffective after a certain number of years? I hope not. Again, this has more to do with mindset and being a learner.Based on your questions, here is one that could be asked about teachers.Does a teacher lose credibility in that position in a classroom if they haven't been a student for 5 years? 10 years? 15 years? To answer my own question…if the teacher doesn't "learn" anymore, then of course they would be out of touch, especially if they do not place themselves in the way that kids learn today based on the way our world is. I don't think that it would have anything to do with them being a formal "student", but again, their mindset to grow and learn. The focus on learning is the most important thing in any of these positions. If you are willing to learn and grow, that should make the biggest difference.I like to think that every single person in a building, whether they are a custodian, parent, student, secretary, teacher, or principal, and anyone else I missed, has the opportunity to be a learner and a teacher.

  4. First of all, I need to say up front that I served as a Principal for eight years and I am biased. This reminds me a bit of Josh Stumpenhorst's post a while back asking if we even need Principals at all.My first question to someone writing a post like this is – Do you wish you had a different Principal? If that is the case, then I think the whole premise is disingenuous. In regards to Principals having a perspective that is out of touch due to a lengthy hiatus from the classroom, I know that I was able to teach a class every other year during my last Principalship. I have also heard of Principals co-teaching a class an others who conduct model lessons for their staff members.In all honestly, I am all for mixing it up a bit. I think people may get stale if they stay in one spot too long (teachers and administrators alike). What if we we all had to move every so often to ensure that we were staying sharp?

  5. I have to agree with Patrick on this one. I've been teaching for seven years–six of which were in my own classroom, and now I'm an ESOL specialist. I think we need to avoid a double standard in this case. I know A LOT of teachers that need to be "kicked out" of where they are in order to relearn how to learn. Teaching, sadly for many, is about comfort and routine. I know teachers that have their handouts made a full year in advance. I know teacher that have taught in the same grade for the last four presidents.If this were true, principals having term limits, then I would have to advocate that teachers would need "reassignment" at the same rate, say every four or five years. As Patrick said, "mix it up a bit."Education is an easy place to dig your wheel lines, your ruts, and like a trail horse, stick to them year after year after year.Essentially, I don't think this is an issue of principalship. It's an issue of professionalism. What are we doing as professionals to continue our own learning, in and out of our school? How are we sharing that learning and encouraging others to do the same?

  6. I can definitely understand where your question is coming from and think that if a principal has become so distant from best practices and what it's like to be in a classroom then it probably is time to step down.However, I do believe that a principal can continue to learn along with their teachers and continue to be active in the classrooms. Here's a post I wrote on Keeping in Touch with Teaching and Learning: @HowePrincipal is a great example of a principal that can still be in touch with teaching/learning. He reads in classrooms everyday. You can find his blog here: invite you to join us in the #educoach chat on Wednesday nights at 9CST, because this often comes up as a topic of conversation as leaders discuss ways to coach/lead.

  7. Thanks Jessica! Very interesting post, Pernille. Most of what I would have said has already been stated by Jessica, Patrick, George and the rest of the commenters. Best practices never goes out of style. As long as I continue to learn, I think I will stay relevant. I haven't been "in the classroom" for almost six years now, but I can still spot great teaching a mile away.

  8. Great post and comments. I taught for 12 years, was a VP for 3 years and am now in my 4th year as a Principal. I remember during my VP assignment, my Principal told me how quickly you can lose touch with what happens in classrooms. Staying relevant takes work – work like continual professional development -both formal and informal – getting into classrooms on an ongoing and regular basis, and not only observing but working with teachers. It think George expressed it best when he said that if a principal isn't a learner, it really doesn't matter how long you are an administrator. A learner will continue to evolve and adapt…and stay relevant!The management part of my job is the part I enjoy the least. The time is spend learning with staff and students in classrooms is what I value the most.

  9. Wow, So many great points have been made here, thank you so much for discussing this. I wish I could reply to each one but I will try this instead.I loved Rose Pillay's comment on Twitter how it is not about advice but about feedback – so true. Principal's and teachers as well need to be able to give relevant feedback and to do that they have to be relevant.And yes, we can certainly include teachers in this discussions. I have blogged about it before; teachers must stay relevant in their practices to be great teachers, otherwise they are not able to fully educate the students well. However, unlike principals, teachers through observations, state report cards, testing, day to day feedback, parent interactions, etc also have many more indicators whether they are staying current and relevant, whereas principals do not.As George eloquently stated; "the focus on learning is the most important in any of these positions." And I agree, so my questions continues to be; with all of the pressures on a principal to go to meetings and be otherwise engaged, what are methods for them to stay relevant and stay learners?Although I appreciate being compared to Josh's post, there is no doubt in my mind that we need principals. And we need great principals, just like principals need great teachers. And no, I do not wish I had a different principal since we just got a new one this year fresh out of the classroom, I think that question misses the point of the post.So while we can continue adding teachers relevancy into the discussion, I think that is something is oft discussed buy teachers and principals alike. That is why I opened this up to focus primarily on the principal's role in a school.Thank you everyone for all of your comments, I am learning a great deal.One final questions is, are the administrators commenting on this post inherently more in the know simply through the use of social media and participating in discussions like this? Again, I have no opinion on this, these are just my train of thoughts.

  10. I agree that it is easier for principals to create a balance by ensuring they have a teaching assignment that has relevance. Unless an administrator has current and ongoing teaching experience – they lose the ability to lead a learning community. I think an extension of this question would relate to central office members. Associate superintendents who have not been in a school for 5 or 6 years lose it heir ability to guide school based administrators with issues from everything from curriculum, technology and bullying – as their first hand experience is dated. So many of these issues look entirely different then they did five years ago. Viadbe

  11. I think schools should be small enough that the Principal teacher could remain a teacher, but then divide some of the duties of said principal teacher amongst the staff more.Unfortunately this is an expensive proposition, and I don't see us moving toward schools of this size (possibly approaching Dunbar's number) any time soon.

  12. Turnover Not Term LimitsThe real problem is continuous principal turnover, not principals staying too long in one position. In fact, studies show that the average tenure of a high school principal is only three years. Rapid turnover of principals lead to increased teacher turnover, problems recruiting and retaining the best teachers, and increased reluctance of staff to commit to school improvement efforts. The aforementioned, in turn, have a sustained, deleterious effect on student achievement.“"Those seeking to improve schooling through efforts to increase teacher effectiveness and build teacher capacity are realizing that such efforts rely heavily on principal capacity and stability." 1. First, research has shown that high principal turnover often leads to greater teacher turnover, which negatively impacts student achievement.2. Second, emerging research and theory has found that principal turnover has direct negative effects on student- and school-level achievement.3. Finally, research suggests that regular principal turnover can lead to teachers not investing in any change efforts and learning to simply “wait [principals] out.” – Ed Fuller

  13. I have been saying this for years! It's not that principals don't have the best interest of kids at heart, but when you are removed from the day-to-day workings of the classroom, I think you can lose touch with what is actually happening. It's kind of like the reality show, Undercover Boss. The position changes a person's concept of reality.

  14. Hey Pernille, I have to add one more comment. I just had a very open and frank conversation with my principal. He is an amazing human being. He has been here for 5 years. Each year our school has improved (according to the State's standards) and continues to move forward. However, there are still road blocks. There are those who don't feel that change is necessary or that the change isn't worth the effort. What are we to do then? Do we move current admin out, start fresh, and try to build that way? When a principal has done everything possible…innovates, encourages, supports, and literally loses sleep over his staff and students, I'd like to think that at some point, we have to point the finger back at us, in the classroom.It is about the learning. It is about the students, but there are far too many components at times to say it's his or her fault, but perhaps we need to say, is OUR fault.

  15. I have been a principal in the same comprehensive high school for nine years. A few thoughts…While a principal has to be the instructional leader, he/she does not have to have been the best teacher. He/she has to know great teaching, be able to describe it, point to it, encourage it and lead people to value and practice it. A principal's primary job is to drive the mission of the school and to develop the right culture that values, enfranchises and even inspires kids and staff in pursuing that mission. Rotating principals cannot do that very well.Should I teach a class? I think that's a great idea, and it helps with credibility to be both current and talented. Sports metaphors are overused, but Phil Jackson did not have to be better than Kobe Bryant, nor did Coach Jackson have to be a current player. He has to manage all of the assembled skills and personalities to get a team to work together towards a common goal. That takes a special talent.

  16. I can see where you are coming from. I'm in a student teaching program now and my master teachers love to hear the new theories and techniques on teaching, because the research I'm learning from now is different from what they've learned. As teachers we need to stay connected to the students and continue to grow professionally, so principals should have to as well. They can't lose touch with the students, and I can see that happening if they never spend time teaching in a classroom. Maybe principals should be required to teach every few years to ensure that, or at least spend more time in classrooms observing and interacting with the students.

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